Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor
If I might take a moment to collect some thoughts about the WISE Congregation process… Having begun in earnest in October and hoping to conclude in May, we are now roughly midway through what we initially set out to be our study and preparation time. We have had a couple of WISE Moments during services. We have gathered during Sunday School time on two Sundays. For the first of those, we heard powerfully compelling and eloquent testimonies from people in this congregation dealing with mental illness and substance abuse directly and indirectly. During the second session, we had an open conversation during which we talked about a variety of questions and issues, and we decided that it was important to follow up on questions about comfort, perhaps guided by Niebuhr’s quote about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. In short, we named the tension between deciding to become WISE and living with the possibility that doing so would set the stage for behaviors and issues that might well test our sense of comfort during our times together. What if someone comes from the com-munity and is disruptive or even danger-ous?
Our planned conversation about that was thrown off by a weather-related cancellation, so we followed up during both services the next Sunday. A number of people spoke out, giving voice to the distinct possibility that the presence of people with more serious behavioral issues could quite likely disrupt what is a necessary and valued time of spiritual sanctuary for each of us, a place to revitalize and renew for life’s challenges, a place to connect with old friends and new friends alike. We did our best to hold all of that in light of the gospel passage from Matthew that says that what we do for the least of these, we do for Jesus; that passage calls us to put ourselves in places beyond our routine. And, on a pragmatic level, we talked also about a desire to get more people into church, and recognized that be-coming WISE may help that to happen.
I know from my community contacts that there is a fair amount of excitement among the mental health community that our becoming WISE would provide a unique resource in town for people with whom they work, people who may be longing for a place of spiritual connection but who are, for whatever reasons, leery of attending church – for example, due to stigma, or because they are afraid that people will not welcome them or that they will not be able to tolerate sitting through a service, or because they have generally given up on finding a way to integrate God into their lives.
Three points of clarification come to mind about all of that. First, we have a special community to share with people in need of connection, a truly loving, accepting and affirming community that offers meaningful relationship with others and with God. Second, as is true for everybody, it may not only be Sunday services that meet peoples’ needs; it may be involvement in the many other aspects of our ministries, whether community service or education or church organization or fellowship. All of those can do a person good.
Third and maybe most important, “they” are already “us.” Of course we need to think about and be ready to welcome those who are still unknown others to us. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that many of us already experience mental illness, substance abuse and brain disorders. Some of us experience mental illness directly – for example, I have talked about my own challenges with depression and anxiety/panic attacks, as others have shared their struggles, and still others of us have family members who have dealt with and are dealing with a wide range of related issues. So as much as we are and ought to be becoming a WISE Congregation for people we don’t yet know, those of us who are already here will benefit from the process as well. Ultimately, if we are all One, by loving and caring for each other and for those who would be drawn to a WISE congregation, we grow as individuals, as a church, and in the image of God.
In many ways, becoming WISE is a very natural extension of who we are as a congregation. We have, and we continue to live into the statement that “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” That is who we are. Becoming WISE will only help us be better at creating a safe and holy space for people dealing with identified issues.
With the hope of drafting a WISE Statement between now and the planned vote on May 19, now is the time to ask questions, express concerns, demonstrate sup-port, and get or stay involved in the process. We will talk together again on the second Sundays of February, March, April, and May. How can we most effectively use that time? If you have things to say or ideas for topics to cover, talk with Michael, or Marty, or send an email to the entire WISE Leadership Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By all means, please sign up for the Mental Health First Aid training that we have arranged to have offered here on March 4 and 5. The sign-up roster is located in the kitchen/chapel corner of the Lounge. That training alone is likely to address many concerns, and it will give us more to talk about.
Thank you for thinking about this, and for being part of the process!
(In a related tidbit, I was recently elected to the Board of the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network that, among other things, sponsors the WISE move-ment. I am humbled and grateful for this new oppor-tunity to serve the UCC on a national level.)